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Gucci’s response to a potentially major PR crisis offers a surprising lesson on how brands can respond effectively to a controversy.

At the Milan Fashion Week, Gucci models stood dressed white outfits, some that resembled straitjackets. They stared blankly while standing on a conveyor belt that rolled them robot-like before the audience.

In a silent but attention-grabbing protest, model Ayesha Tan-Jones held up her hands to display the statement written on her palms: “Mental health is not fashion.” The model’s silent protest contained the ingredients to cause a significant public relations crisis for Gucci.

Following up in an Instagram post, the model revealed that she and her family had struggled with mental illness. “It is in bad taste for Gucci to use the imagery of strait jackets and outfits alluding to mental patients, while being rolled out on a conveyor belt as if a piece of factory meat,” Tan-Jones wrote.

Gucci has faced other PR incidents in the past that could have tarnished the brand. It’s designers previously introduced a black turtleneck that covered the face and had a mouth opening with red lips around it. Many people said it resembled blackface. The brand should have known better, considering that politicians had suffered when old photos of them in blackface surfaced.

Gucci apologized and dropped the sweater, ironically introduced during Black History Month, from its lineup and emphasized its commitment to increasing diversity. Brands can avoid such mistakes if they hired more people of color who are more likely to spot such problematic products before they’re marketed.

Gucci’s Response

Somewhat surprisingly, significant public outrage did not materialize from the mental health incident.  (No, the protest wasn’t part of a planned PR stunt.)

Rather than becoming defensive, Gucci supported the model’s action as a right to free speech.

In an Instagram post, Gucci said the white costumes that resembled uniforms and straitjackets were meant to make a statement about societal control and were not intended for sale. Many runway fashions are created to attract attention and cause a media stir, not to be sold.

In Gucci’s statement, creative director Alessandro Michele said he created the gowns to showcase “the most extreme version of uniform dictated by society and those who control it.”

Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at brand consultancy Landor, told Ad Week that runway shows are meant to provoke an emotional reaction. “Given that, it’s not surprising that sometimes, designers might unwittingly, with no ill intention, back themselves into a corner or move forward with a concept they’re excited about and unintentionally run into these issues.” she said.

“In some ways, some good might come out of this because we talk about almost every health issue in the world today very openly,” she added. “But mental health issues are often still not talked about, so maybe that’s the silver lining here, and maybe some good can potentially come out of it.”

Consumers Prefer Brands that Take Stands

“This is a powerful example of how it’s possible for brands to support and reach out to those they’ve offended without necessarily renouncing the stand they’ve chosen to take,” writes Shama Hyder, CEO of Zen Media, in Forbes.

Today’s idealistic consumers increasingly favor brands that take principled-but-provocative stands, Hyder says. “Consumers expect the brands they patronize to ‘walk their talk.’ They want brands that aren’t afraid to not only express their values, but live up to them.”

Gucci got attention with its provocative fashion display. And while some called in inappropriate and insensitive, others praised it, Hyder notes.

Controversy – Good or Bad?

The incident raises the question of how brands should react when they inadvertently cause controversy. Traditionally, brands avoid controversy, but in today’s environment standing firm may gain respect.

“Controversy on its own is not bad. What’s more important, especially in today’s digital landscape, is how a brand responds to the controversy,” Hyder says. “When controversy arises, brands must embrace this controversy and encourage conversation.”

Brands walk a tight rope when touching controversial issues. Controversial stances can gain customers’ attention, increase engagement and improve brand awareness better than more mundane types of content. But contentious, divisive actions can easily fall flat or even damage PR and marketing efforts.

Bottom Line: Gucci caused a flap with its controversial fashion show. Its measured response shows how a brand can assuage feelings while not abandoning its original stance.